CURRENT LOCATION: Great Sale Cay anchorage, Abacos, Northwestern Bahamas
26 57.655' N, 078 13.252' W (CLICK HERE
for Google Maps), or try to 'Copy > Paste' the numbers into Google Earth
Dear Reader, the following blog entry covers our departure from Stuart, FL, crossing of the Gulf Stream, and arrival at our first anchorage in the Bahamas. The dates for this sojourn cover November 29th and 30th; however, as you soon shall read, the two days were as one for us since sleep was not obtained by either of us for the entire 36-hour period described herein. Enjoy...
After listening, one more time, to Chris Parker's weather on the SSB radio, we started the engine, untied the mooring lines, and we were off. Departure time: 7:25 AM, November 29, 2007
I will not bore you with details of our journey down the ICW, save to say that we had to manage the boat through 8 opening bridges in a distance of under 33 statute miles. Toss in a good measure of tidal current which either slows one's pace between the bridges or pushes one toward the bridge before they are fully open, and you begin to get the picture. The only other feature of this journey I will note for those boaters who are familiar with dodging crabpots on the Chesapeake Bay or the rivers and sounds of North Carolina, floating coconuts look an awful lot like crabpots until you get fairly close. Of course, they do not constitute nearly the same threat to one's prop posed by a line dangling below a float tied to a heavy cage; however, out of habit, Sheryl and I avoided them just the same.
By late afternoon we had dealt with the eighth and final opening bridge (celebrating the fact that we do not know when or if we will ever take Prudence
through another opening bridge), and we were motoring out Lake Worth Inlet in Palm Beach. Our plan for crossing the Gulf Stream followed a recommendation we read about in our chart book. Sara & Monty Lewis, whom we had the great privilege to hear speak at the Southbound Cruiser's Rendezvous in New Bern, are the authors of the Explorer chartbook series for the Bahamas. In addition to being the easiest-to-read charts we have ever used, they come with articles and abstracts which make the books a combination of chart and guidebook (the dynamic duo of resources required for cruising practically anywhere
In an article titled, "S-Curves: Vectoring Across the Stream," they outline a strategy for crossing the 45-nautical mile wide north-flowing 'ocean river' known as the Gulf Stream. Their approach is as follows: First, you need to calculate how far you will be carried north by the Stream during your transit time (average current in the Stream is about 2.5 knots). For us, that meant a 'Current Factor' somewhere between 20 - 30 nautical miles). Now, instead of steering toward your destination, along the 'Rhumb Line,' you would need to steer a course along the 'dotted line' to this more southern destination. However, if you consider that the current in the Stream is strongest in the middle and weaker on the edges, it makes sense to do any southerly course corrections either early or late in the journey (or, more likely, both), in order to avoid pointing south during the peak northerly currents. Corrections on both sides results in an S-shaped course across the Gulf Stream. For us, the path looked more like a big check mark...
Sheryl and I decided to make much of our southerly course corrections on the Florida side of the stream; therefore, we pointed due south as soon as we exited Lake Worth Inlet. The western edge of the Gulf Stream is only 7 nautical miles from Florida at this point, so we motor-sailed only 4-6 miles from shore as we watched the sun set. As darkness fell upon us, we were ready to take our leave of the United States, and turned toward our waypoint at Memory Rock on the Little Bahama Bank. Sheryl pointed out a traffic light on the land off our stern which had just changed from green to red. I suppose that is the last traffic light we may be seeing for a while.
Unfortunately, it was not the last red and green lights we were to encounter on this night. Thursday night boat traffic was heavy out on the Gulf Stream, everything from little fishing boats, to big cruise ships, to even bigger container ships. The only way we can identify what direction another boat is headed at night is to look for a green or red light. Depending on what side of us the light is seen and which color it is, it may be cause for concern or celebration (in other words, is the boat coming toward us or going away). Again, our greatest concern is placing ourselves in the path of a BIG boat (which may not be able to see our little boat, and would not even notice if it smashed us beneath its hull). Regardless of the official navigational rules, it is in our own best interest to take action to see that we do not get in the way of a BIG boat.
Maneuvering in the Gulf Stream posed some interesting challenges. Along our heading (east of northeast), we were averaging about 4-6 knots. However, if we turned as little as 10 degrees in one direction, our speed would drop to almost 2 knots. If we turned as little as 10 degrees in the other direction, our speed would increase to over 8 knots! This added a new twist to the challenge of dodging other boats. It also made us concerned enough about tracking the other boats (sometimes as many as a half-dozen red or green lights could be seen around us at once), that we both stayed in the cockpit all night. One took the helm while the other watched the radar and the horizon to keep track of all the lights and how far the BIG boats were from us.
Helm duty, itself, was a bit challenging. With winds out of the east, we had a reefed main and staysail up to help steady us in the waves (there was a considerable northeast swell) and give the engine a little help in pushing us towards our destination. Maintaining course and keeping the sails filled with air required hand steering. Besides, the autohelm was still giving us a little compass trouble and could not be trusted.
Another item which failed to function for this trip is the light on the binnacle compass. This is unfortunate, because it is often easier to steer the boat by the binnacle compass, rather than the GPS compass, in big seas. The GPS compass has a tendency to bounce around a bit more as we slide around on waves. Somewhere around the middle of the crossing (when the Gulf Stream current is at its strongest), after a course correction to avoid another boat, Sheryl finally became frustrated with the GPS compass and shined her little red flashlight on the binnacle compass. Imagine our surprise when we found that there was nearly a 60 degree difference between the binnacle and the GPS headings! I ran to get one of our hand-held GPS units and one of our hand bearing compasses, just to be sure that neither technology was giving false readings. It was true, our boat was pointed east of southeast (120 degrees), but we were moving east of northeast (060 degrees). In daylight we may have noticed that we were crabbing along, but in darkness there was no point of reference. Sheryl quickly extinguished her little red flashlight, and resigned herself to steer by the wind and our speed.
Eventually, the current began to become more manageable and we were able to steer a more easterly course (toward our destination). With the wind directly on the nose, we took down the main and sheeted the staysail tight along the centerline of the boat, just to give us stability in the waves. We arrived off Little Bahama Bank about an hour before first light and had to delay until daybreak before we went onward. The transition from the ocean to the bank goes from hundreds of feet of depth to just a few feet in an amazingly short time. In addition, at the point we were entering, there was no land in sight. Only water and more water. Our hope was that daylight would bring at least some degree of visible confirmation that we were making this momentous transition.
We have a GPS and we have a chart, but (when coastal cruising) we always like to verify our position with some form of visual confirmation, a marker, a tree, a tower, something
. Even after daylight arrived, though, there was nothing much to see. We were crossing onto a bank with shoal water and coral heads, and we could see nothing which differed from the ocean for as far as the eye could see. We were going to have to trust in our navigational skills. It was a tension-filled time for the sleep-deprived crew of Prudence
. We motored slowly onward, toward the rising sun, hoping to see some numbers appear on the depth gauge to indicate that we had come up upon the banks at the correct spot.
Off in the distance, we finally saw something
on the horizon, but we were not sure exactly what it was. Memory Rock was supposed to be out that way (about 4 nautical miles off) with a marker on it, but we had no idea what Memory Rock was supposed to look like (they should put a picture in the guide book). Finally, the numbers started to appear on the depth gauge. We went rapidly from 150 feet (our max reading) to 40 feet, then slightly more gradually to about 15 feet, all of this within less than a half mile. The bottom became visible (almost frighteningly so), and we were on the banks.
We switched the depth gauge from feet to meters, just to match the chart, and kept our eyes on the water and the depth gauge while we navigated through some close-to-shoal areas toward our first Bahamian waypoint. Two other sailboats appeared on the horizon, and we soon learned that they were at anchor. They weighed anchor as we motored by, and one boat hailed us. We had met at Thanksgiving dinner in Stuart. We learned that they had crossed about 12 hours ahead of us and had anchored as soon as they got on the banks. They traded a daylight crossing of the Gulf Stream for a rather uncomfortable (very exposed) overnight anchorage. All three of our boats were headed to the same anchorage for tonight, at Great Sale Cay (an uninhabited island). Since we were motoring directly eastward, into the wind (with our little 24-horsepower engine and two-bladed prop pushing nearly 2 tons of boat and provisions), they quickly passed us and led the way.
We soon grew comfortable in these clear, aquamarine waters and the depths remained 3 meters or better. We turned on the autopilot, which decided to work flawlessly after I gave the compass a few taps with a hammer (now that we have a spare aboard, I can take more drastic steps toward creative repair solutions), and settled in for the 9-hour ride to Great Sale Cay.
The trip was uneventful, except for one occasion (very near the anchorage), where we noticed a huge patch of light-colored water ahead. Sheryl and I could both see what looked like very shallow water, but nothing on the chart matched this shoal. Not taking any chances, we motored toward the edge of it and slowed down. We passed over the very edge of the light patch and noted no change in the depth gauge. We had encountered our first 'fish mud.' Described in both our guide book and the Explorer chart, 'fish muds' are areas which look like shallow sandy spots; however, they are caused by fish stirring up light-colored silt from the bottom.
With that last bit of adrenaline pumped into our bloodstreams, we approached the anchorage and dropped the CQR into 3.5 meters of crystal-clear water. It was a unique sensation, being able to watch the chain pay out all the way to the bottom as the wind blew us backwards.
Once set, we shut down the engine (33 hours after it had been started). I was ready to do my favorite Caribbean sailing chore. I quickly donned a swimsuit and mask, dived into the water, and swam out to check on the anchor set. It was firmly dug in. The swim back made me realize just how exhausted I was.
After a quick rinse with fresh water, Sheryl and I sat in the cockpit and toasted our accomplishment. As the sun set, we discussed how our absolute level of fatigue was battling with the pure excitement of being here, on our own boat, in the Bahamas! Sheryl made the grand effort of cooking a simple dinner, while I tuned in a local radio station for our listening pleasure. All of the talk on the radio was about Junkanoo
, a Bahamian celebration which occurs between Christmas and New Year's. I guess the Holidays are going to be a bit different for us this year.
After a good meal came an early bedtime. Or was it a really, really
late bedtime? Regardless, it was almost exactly 36-hours from our departure time. Bedtime: 7:25 PM, November 30, 2007